State health officials stress importance of vaccinating youngest Alaskans against COVID

W white man with a t shirt and mask and baseball cap hugs a girl wearing a red face mask with blond hair
A child gets a kiss from her dad after getting her COVID-19 vaccine during a pediatric clinic in November 2021, at Riverbend Elementary School in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Children under 5 years old began getting COVID-19 vaccines in Alaska last week.

In a health presentation to parents Tuesday night, state health officials stressed the importance of getting kids vaccinated and addressed common concerns. Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said COVID-19 vaccines for the youngest Alaskans have been a long time coming. 

“Some of you have had your children during this pandemic and have not had great ways to protect them against the worst of this disease,” she said. “Even though we know that it does not impact children to the same degree as our elders, we know that our children are not immune from this virus.”

The state reported a 26% increase in COVID-19 cases this week compared to the previous week.

Case numbers reported among young children have been lower than older groups. But pediatrician Dr. Mishelle Nace said it’s still worth getting them vaccinated to reduce the likelihood of severe symptoms.

“We want you to know that they’re safe and they are effective,” she said. “It doesn’t change a person’s DNA. It doesn’t impact fertility. It’s not been shown to have long-term impacts from the vaccination, and we know that there’s secondary effects from getting COVID-19.”

The two Alaskans under 19 who have died of COVID were both infants. There have also been more hospitalizations among kids younger than 10 than among older kids. Just 42 kids ages 10 to 19 have been hospitalized in Alaska, while 76 kids under 10 have, according to state data.

In Alaska, 23 kids have had multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, a serious condition that can develop in the weeks after a COVID-19 infection. Eleven of them were younger than 4.

The risk for myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation, is higher from a COVID-19 infection than a vaccination, said pediatric cardiologist Dr. Kevin Kollins.

Health officials also emphasized how thorough the research was on pediatric vaccines before they were authorized. Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz said there were no cases of myocarditis, no allergic reactions and no deaths during trials for the vaccines. Plus, she said, the doses given to older groups have provided scientists with additional data.

“The pediatric population is a protected population, so if you’re wondering why this is coming so late in the game, we really take this population so seriously,” she said. “All the adults, all the older children, those trials happened first. We have the benefit of millions of doses to look at, in terms of safety and efficacy, before they started trials in this younger age group.”

Pfizer has a two-dose pediatric vaccine, and Moderna has a three-dose vaccine. Spacing between the doses varies depending on the brand. 

Rabinowitz said not all pediatricians and clinics will have both brands in stock, so parents should opt for whichever one is available from their provider. She said parents should talk to their pediatricians about any questions or concerns.

So far, one in four Alaska kids ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The state has yet to publish data on vaccine rates for the youngest group.

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